Coaching in Chaos: Embracing the Theoretical

Written by: Kevin Cann


There have been a few seemingly random incidents that have drawn me to write this article.  It started about a week ago when one of my lifters said she doesn’t like the idea of being a lab rat in an experiment. This was a good conversation even though it may not sound like that from that statement.


I wrote an article explaining a coaching theory that got grown men to bring out the poop emojis to tear it down and last night I read an article that said everyone that disagreed with the author was wrong.  This author offers zero reasons why he is right other than “it works” and the other person gave no reason why my theories were wrong other than “it’s stupid.”


Sadly this is the way of the world nowadays.  No one can have a discussion anymore.  In the absence of a discussion I am going to give some context into my thinking.  You see, everyone that has a coach is a lab rat in an experiment.


This is all theory. There are not many things that we know that are absolutes in strength training.  The only difference is that I embrace the theoretical while the others are dealing in absolutes that don’t exist.


I wasn’t always like this. There was a time too that I coached by absolutes.  It was easy to think I was on the right path because we saw results.  Of course we did, we are training.  As Fred Hatfield said, training is either good, better, or best. I was hanging out in the good range.


I was using “mobility” tools at this time as well.  Of course they “worked” at times.  I was tapping into the person’s expectation bias and the placebo effect.  In many of these cases the “issues” of the person were probably a result of the nocebo effect.


This past October when I was assessing my performance as a coach throughout the previous year something happened.  Every year I would ask myself questions and answer these questions.  The answers to my questions would dictate some changes to our training.


This past October was different.  The majority of the answers I came up with to questions were “I don’t know.”  I felt lost at first and there was a shadow of doubt that creeped over me for a brief period of time.


I knew volume was important. I would argue it was the most important aspect of training.  However, when I pushed volumes we didn’t always get stronger.  There was no optimal volume for each person where we saw results.


I had even run highly successful blocks over again with new maxes and we did not reproduce results. How can this be?  This worked before, why is it not working now?  Something would go poorly and I would blame it on something outside of the gym.


They are eating less, that is it.  That is why they aren’t getting stronger.  Poor performance on the platform?  Had to be the weight cut.  Do these things matter?  Absolutely. However, they are just a small piece of a larger puzzle.


That last part brought a lot of questions about fatigue and how it affects performance.  How can someone hit higher numbers when volume is higher than after we taper?  What about supercompensation?  Why didn’t this happen?


Through my experiences I have begun to realize that we do not know as much as we think.  My world was shattered for a bit.  Here I am a full-time powerlifting coach and I can’t answer basic questions about getting stronger.


I went back and reread Kiely’s article “Periodization Paradigms in the 21stCentury: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven.”  I had read this article in the past and made some changes to the program.  I had allowed the lifters to have a bit more freedom and started monitoring some more internal data such as mood and RPE.  This time I read it through a different lens.


I had more experience as a coach.  My team has grown exponentially, and I think I was just seeing what happens with a large data pool using my current methods.  These experiences made this article make a lot more sense to me.


When I first read the article, I was reading it for answers.  This time I think I read it to ask more questions.  I was basically soul searching at this time.  After reading and rereading this article something clicked. Mike Amato and I had done a seminar that we titled “Embracing Uncertainty.”  I needed to just do that.


I needed to embrace the uncertainty of training and be a better coach.  A coach makes decisions based off of the information they have. The program is not the coach.  I was focused on the wrong things.  I was dealing with absolutes that just aren’t true.


I sat down and decided to look back over the years and to figure out what we actually know.  We know that volume matters, but how much is necessary?  Over the years I added in more heavy singles and these intensity intervals that allowed lifters to go up to a certain point if it felt easy.


These intervals had restrictions based off of load management monitoring which I will get to in a minute.  I noticed the more heavier sets we did the better results we got.  The number of lifts and average intensities were the same, I made sure of this.  With that being equal, heavier sets worked better.


The number of lifts and average intensities were the same because of my load management strategies. I realized I was allowing this monitoring tool to dictate training instead of myself as the coach using that information in combination with other information to make the best decisions for the athlete.


This brought me to my other question, what about fatigue management?  I was utilizing this load management tool because we know fatigue management is important.  However, how do we know when we need to pull back and when we should push it?


We don’t.  I do not think powerlifting is as taxing as many of the other sports out there.  I think we are capable of training much harder than we think.  The sport of powerlifting is one of the safest ones to participate in.  It is safer than running.


No one is blowing out an ACL lifting weights.  Our feet are stationary, and we are laying down for a third of it.  We deal with the occasional muscle strain and that is basically it.  I am talking about raw powerlifting.  Once we throw gear on and add steroids the risks of muscle tears increase.


So how can we monitor fatigue?  We can listen to what our body is telling us and what our performance is dictating. If we are experiencing some discomfort, we discuss it and alter positions or weight if necessary.


If performance is dropping we have options.  If we are far away from a meet, we can continue to push through.  This will force the lifter to adapt and progress will be on the other side.  We can also pull back for a few training sessions.  Let them recover a bit so we can have a high-performance training session sooner than later.


This brings me to my next point, the person’s emotions matter.  The lifter’s emotions, beliefs, and perceptions are a piece of their physiological strength.  This information needs to be taken into consideration into the decision-making process.


Next, because of my time with Sheiko I have the strong fundamental belief that lifting is a skill and technique is the most important aspect of training.  This doesn’t mean that the lifts need to look perfect, but we need to structure training in a way that focuses on these weaknesses.


I dove into the skill acquisition rabbit hole. I learned about a constraints-led approach and realized I had been attempting to do this without understanding the theory fully. This would allow me to put lifters into positions that punish bad technique and I can still load them up with heavier weights.


I now focus my attention on “effective sets.”  We perform 1 to 2 sets at an RPE between 8.5-9.5 on each exercise each training day. We pull back on these as performance and other fatigue measures such as discomfort dictate.


It is my job as the coach to guide them along the path of self-organizing technique.  This is from analyzing their lifts and altering the task by variation as well as presenting the appropriate feedback at the right times and in the correct manner.


Volume is important. I have decided to keep the number of lifts roughly the same and allow the hard sets to be utilized to make sure we get a minimum effective training stimulus.  When progress stalls we change things up.  Maybe this means we add more volume, maybe it doesn’t.


I think the volume has a protective effect to the lifter.  We make sure we are staying around baseline at all times.  When we pull back, we make sure that we don’t pull back too hard as spikes in acute workloads when chronic workloads are lower may increase injury risk.


I began coaching the whole person.  The mechanical pieces still matter, but so do the psychological.  I take the emotions of the lifter into consideration when making decisions.  Sometimes we will do things just to build confidence and momentum.  This can help the lifter to get their mind working for them rather than against them.  This also means getting to know them as a human being and showing them that you care.


Chaos theory is a form of math that focuses on dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to perturbations.  Within these seemingly disordered events we can see some order when we view it from a macroscopic view.  This is true of the people in front of us looking to get stronger.


A lot of the questions I could not answer in the beginning seemed like random disorder.  However, when I took a second to step back and take a larger view, I could see some order forming.  Hopefully as I gain more experience, I can continue to make more and more sense of this.



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